EDITOR’S NOTE: Final in a four-part in a series about the history of the Tift Park Zoo.
ALBANY — Danielle Strickland grew up at the Tift Park Zoo — literally. Her grandfather was zoo director W. T. Hill. She recalls idyllic evenings in the late 1960s and early 1970s when she and her grandfather walked to the zoo after dinner from their home on Tenth Avenue. She watered plants and helped feed some of the animals while he cared for the sick or injured.
That’s what zoo directors did in those days. With a small staff and a tight budget, the zoo director and his family never really had a day off. The animals needed care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hill was most likely at the zoo in the middle of many nights, during the worst thunderstorms, and on every holiday. Strickland also recalls Hill’s devotion to Laska the elephant — a devotion she says the elephant returned.
“Laska was like a big dog,” Strickland said. “She protected my grandfather by trumpeting and throwing water with her trunk when people got too close to him.”
Hill arrived in Albany in early 1970 after he retired from the Jacksonville Zoo. Nearly a decade later, he oversaw the closing of the old zoo in Tift Park and the opening of the Wild Animal Park at Chehaw. He ran the new zoo until he retired in June 1985.
But Hill was an old-school zoo director in a time of remarkable changes in how society viewed its zoos. In the1970s and 1980s, zoo officials were learning about animals in their natural habitat from field biologists like Jane Goodall and from documentary television programs like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Albany’s Jim Fowler. Governments were passing legislation to protect wild animals and wild places as zoos created education departments and explored new concepts in animal exhibit design.
I was fortunate to begin my zoo career when cities all over North America were transforming their facilities. It was at that time that the San Diego Zoo was opening its wild animal park on nearly 2,000 acres of property. The zoological Society of Miami was planning a 600-acre zoo, and Minneapolis was developing a new 500-acre zoo in the suburb of Apple Valley. And in June 1974, when Albany was trying to raise $200,000 to build its Jim Fowler-designed wild animal park at Chehaw, I was on a Polish freighter escorting a shipment of animals across the Atlantic Ocean for the city of Toronto’s new 700-acre, $28 million zoo.
The renaissance of zoos during this period usually took one of two paths. Most communities sided with Albany and chose to move their zoo to more spacious sites. That meant simply closing the old zoo and doing away with the old cages.
The polar bear enclosure at Toronto’s Riverdale Zoo, for example, was built in the 1920s but it was like something out of the middle ages. It was about 50 square feet with a concrete floor that was mostly taken up by a shallow, circular pool. Its heavy iron bars reached a height of 10 or 12 feet and curled inward at the top in an upside-down, u-shape, terminating in sharp tips. When I arrived on the scene in 1974, we were moving the bears to spacious new quarters at Toronto’s new zoo in the suburbs. The Riverdale Zoo, much like Albany’s Tift Park Zoo, was closing down.
I had a similar experience 10 years later as the superintendent of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Tampa was also demolishing its zoo and relocating its animals, but Tampa chose not to abandon its historic location. Tampa’s new zoo would be built at the same location, in Lowry Park.
Another zoo that anchors its historic location in a city park is Zoo Atlanta. This is the zoo that lured me into the zoo business when I visited as a student at Mercer University in the spring of 1970. The famous gorilla, Willie B, was 9 years old. The World of Reptiles building was state-of-the art and would stand for another 44 years. I saw elephants, big cats, apes and bears. I was amazed at the variety of reptiles and birds. I was well and truly hooked and chose zoo work as my career. I gave up my basketball scholarship, transferred to the University of South Florida in Tampa, and got a job at Busch Gardens.
But that’s not the end of the Zoo Atlanta story. According to its website, the zoo’s deteriorating conditions caused it to be hung with the label of one of America’s 10 worst zoos in 1984. The community responded to the crisis by privatizing the zoo, appointing a new management team, and redeveloping its zoo into a state-of-the-art, modern zoological garden — in its historic location.
In Albany, having a state park with hundreds of acres of wooded property a couple of miles down the road probably made the move of the zoo out of Tift Park a foregone conclusion. The first mention of moving the zoo to Chehaw was in July 1968, when the Albany Chamber of Commerce requested that the city move the Tift Park Zoo to Chehaw State Park. The director of State Parks, John L. Gordon, however, declined the request due to “limited funds available.” Jim Fowler of “Wild Kingdom” is mentioned as assisting with design improvements. By 1972, two years after the hiring of W. T. Hill, the city again began working with the state on relocating the zoo to Chehaw Park. The rest, as they say, is history.
When my friend Wayne Whitfield offered to give me a tour of the old zoo site, I jumped at the chance. Wayne grew up not far from the zoo and said his memories are vivid. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to visualize what he was trying to show me because there was not a single landmark in place. Perhaps one day a map could be erected with a couple of markers to commemorate this important part of Albany’s history — maybe as part of the new bike trail that slices through the heart of the old zoo site.
I am not sure how I should feel about the disappearance of the Tift Park Zoo. On one hand, I am glad for the animals that moved to more natural surroundings at Chehaw park. But on the other hand, I am sad that we lost a part of our community’s social infrastructure. These types of places are the glue that binds communities together. Moving the zoo to a remote location in Lee County is not unlike the shift of Albany’s downtown business and shopping district to the Albany Mall in 1976.
When Whitfield finished with my tour of the old park, he wanted to remain and walk around on his own. As I sat in my car and watched him wander the site, I had an image of him as a young boy in short pants, running excitedly from cage to cage with his friends. In the movie version of this scene, we would fade from the sepia tones of childhood to the living color of present day and see him as a grown man walking an empty park, reliving memories of his youth — memories that, for him as so many others, are like faded photos in an old album.